As a state board gets closer to deciding whether to fund a new criminal courthouse in downtown Santa Barbara, local officials continue to lobby the state to move forward with the project. The County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to send a letter to the Judicial Council — the policy-making body of California’s judicial branch — in support of the new building. In the coming months, the council will decide whether to funnel the money to Santa Barbara, which is competing against several other like projects around the state.
In 2007, the Legislature approved SB 1407 to raise $5 billion in newly imposed court fines and penalties for the construction of new court buildings throughout California. And Santa Barbara is in serious need of such a building, Superior Court executive officer Gary Blair said. The state has agreed at a preliminary level, with a Court Facilities Working Group identifying the S.B. Superior Court as one of 24 out of 31 statewide sites with “immediate” or “critical” needs.
Funding for the construction — slated for a plot of land adjacent to the Figueroa courthouse that the state purchased in 2011 — was originally approved in 2010 with a budget of $152 million. But the state has had to trim funding for some courthouses and delay other projects because of the large costs associated with a new courthouse in Long Beach. That courthouse was originally going to be built with state General Fund dollars but no longer is, making it necessary to pull from SB 1407 coffers.
In response, Blair and his team are fine-tuning their project — reducing square footage and analyzing different options to make the project cheaper, he said. The new, eight-courtroom courthouse option seems most feasible, Blair said. Adding on to the current building would actually cost more money, he explained, while an option of adding two courtrooms on the back end of the Figueroa building wouldn’t really solve the security issues officials are hoping to fix.
Neither the Figueroa courthouse nor the historic courthouse are anywhere near ideal when it comes to safety. Currently, there are two criminal courtrooms in the historic courthouse, which means “chain gangs” of inmates are walked across the street each day, an obvious security risk.
The current criminal courthouse, built in the 1950s on Figueroa Street, originally held four courtrooms. Eventually, rooms that used to house county departments were converted into two more courtrooms. In both courthouses, inmates are walked through the public halls and stairwells and transported in the public elevator. Officials hope to build a new courthouse with internal, secure corridors to keep inmates out of the public eye until they arrive in the courtroom.
“Our Figueroa Court Building was constructed nearly 60 years ago at a time when the South Coast was significantly less populated,” then-presiding judge Brian Hill said in a September statement. “Times have changed and the need for a more functional court and secure building is imperative.”
A subcommittee convening January 18 will make a recommendation to a higher committee, Blair said, and then that committee will make a recommendation to the Judicial Council. If Santa Barbara is chosen, the project — supported by Sheriff Bill Brown, the Board of Supervisors, Mayor Helene Schneider, and the Chamber of Commerce — would start almost immediately in July with planning and design.
Meanwhile, county officials are looking at the possibility of shedding some of the costs of current court operations. Right now, the county pays roughly $6.7 million for court operations each year, one of only 20 counties throughout the state that does so. Because of the increased county responsibility under public safety realignment to house criminals, as well as ambitious goals of opening and operating a new North County Jail, officials are looking for a way to increase revenue streams to pay for these.
County staff and lobbyists were directed by the county’s Legislative Platform Committee to draft a “white paper” detailing strategies and analysis on how to proceed in possibly reducing or eliminating the payment.